The ideology of monolingualism in the Australian context

Posted by Maïa Ponsonnet on March 26, 2011

By Maïa Ponsonnet, Doctor in Philosophy, adjunct researcher at CREDO (Centre de recherche et de documentation sur l’Océanie, CNRS, Marseille), and PhD Scholar in the Linguistics Department of the Australian National University, Canberra. Maïa Ponsonnet has been working with the Dalabon community, in the Northern Territory of Australia, on the documentation of the Dalabon and Kriol languages in particular, since 1998.
Which languages will Maggie Tukumba's great-grand daughter learn when she gets older?

Which languages will Maggie Tukumba's great-grand daughter learn when she gets older?

Last week, we described the Australian linguistic context prior to colonisation, and the situation of Indigenous Australian languages nowadays. This week, we will question the role of language ideologies in Australia, focusing on the contrast between past and contemporary monolingualism.


A drastic contrast


In contrast with the Aboriginal tradition, many Australians live in a mainly monolingual environment, and it is common to hear Australian linguists criticize Australians’ blind monolingualism, i.e. the lack of awareness of their compatriots about linguistic diversity, what it means to speak another language, to be bilingual, etc.


Of course, such a broad complaint runs the trivial risk of turning into exaggerated stigmatisation – or, in a more benign fashion, into a local joke (see photo). The reality is that a large number of Australians, coming from Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, India, … also have their own ethnic background and speak one or several languages other than English.


For many others, however, especially those who cannot afford to travel overseas regularly, exposure to foreign languages remains exceptional. Besides, as native speakers of English, Australians experience no practical need to learn another language. Exposure to Aboriginal languages is insignificant; ethnic languages mostly remain a private affair. And one is forced to admit that the Australian Government has sometimes fallen short of understanding the nature and mechanisms of multilingualism, in particular the tradition of multilingualism of Indigenous Australian groups.


An ironic poster in the linguists’ corner of the Australian National University. Photo: Julia C. Miller

An ironic poster in the linguists’ corner of the Australian National University. Photo: Julia C. Miller


The “First Four Hours Policy”


In 2008, the Labor Governement of the Northern Territory of Australia, with the support of Kevin Rudd’s Labor Federal Government, ruled that in every school of the Northern Territory, the first four hours of each day’s classes should be delivered in English. This became known as the “First Four Hours Policy”.


Such a policy would have effectively scrapped the bilingual programs that had been in place in a number of Aboriginal communities since the seventies. In practise, local languages were confined to one and a half hour in the afternoon – that is, to nothing. This policy is now an episode in history, since in early 2011 the Northern Territory Government discretely stepped back. Nonetheless, the “Bilingual Education” affair remains an important episode, since it triggered revealing debates.


Ideology in question


One of the main official arguments against bilingual education claimed that bilingual schools obtained poorer results – in other words, using two languages was presented as a source of confusion for students.Another important, deeply ideological argument emphasized that Aboriginal children should be given a chance to learn English – with the implicit assumption that a child cannot learn two languages at a time.


Both arguments reflected the lack of exposure to, and understanding of multilingualism as a core, deeply rooted cultural practise in Australian Indigenous communities.


On the other hand, loud and persistent protests by Indigenous community members, teachers, linguists, Indigenous activists and others, demonstrated that not all Australians ignore the nature, value and cultural relevance of multilingualism.


The outcome of the debate and the long-lasting existence of bilingual programs in a number of Aboriginal communities show that Australian Governments, in spite of their “monolingualist ideologies”, can perceive and accept a certain level of cultural specificity in this respect.


Nevertheless, in the Australian (post-)colonial context, it is hard to preserve multilingualism, even for these communities which relied heavily on linguistic diversity prior to invasion.


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The Australian tradition of multilingualism and the post-colonial context

Posted by Maïa Ponsonnet on March 21, 2011

By Maïa Ponsonnet, Doctor in Philosophy, adjunct researcher at CREDO (Centre de recherche et de documentation sur l’Océanie, CNRS, Marseille), and PhD Scholar in the Linguistics Department of the Australian National University, Canberra. Maïa Ponsonnet has been working with the Dalabon community, in the Northern Territory of Australia, on the documentation of Dalabon and Kriol in particular, since 1998.
Maggie Tukumba, speaker of Dalabon

Maggie Tukumba, speaker of Dalabon, a threatened language of Arnhem Land, Australia, recording her language with Maïa Ponsonnet. Photo extracted from a video by Matthieu Rabusseau.

“Sorry, I don’t speak ‘Aboriginal’”

When explaining my work and research activities with the Dalabon Aboriginal group of Northern Australia, I sometimes face the following question: “Do you speak Aboriginal?” Sometimes the question comes from Europeans, who tend to view Australia as a large but culturally uniform entity; sometimes it comes from Australians who have not been exposed to the multilingual patterns of Aboriginal communities in their own country.

This idea of a linguistically homogeneous Indigenous Australia is a complete misrepresentation. Specialists estimate that in 1788, when the first British colonists settled in Sydney, the continent would have hosted some 250 distinct languages (dialects excluded). Most Australian Indigenous groups regard language as a crucial identity marker: Aboriginal people often use language names more or less like ethnic labels, that is, as the names for larger social groups above the family and clan levels.

Australian long lasting, broad scale multilingualism

This linguistic patch-work and the identity function of languages, however, did not prevent communication between groups. Surely, representatives of groups in the far North had no opportunity to communicate with groups in the Southern region, for instance. Individuals did not walk across the 3000km wide continent, nor did they walk even half that distance to gather at Uluru/Ayers Rock. However, individuals and groups did communicate and exchange goods, skills, spouses, rituals, across large regions, by means of physical movements or by means of intermediaries, each group exchanging with its closest neighbours, weaving a fine social network.

Multilingualism is both a condition and a result of such an exchange network. Among Australian Indigenous people, learning several languages is usually considered a spontaneous process, occurring along the normal course of growing up and becoming an adult. The idea is that a child should naturally learn the languages of his or her mother and closest ascendants first – which can amount three or four languages. Further languages may also be acquired when marrying someone speaking yet another language, or when interacting with other groups in the course of rituals or various social exchanges. Thus linguistic skills are necessary to interact socially as an accomplished adult; but such skills are also a consequence of these interactions: the fact that a child can normally hear several languages spoken in his immediate environment is a consequence of intermarriage between different linguistic groups, the core of social exchange.

Australian linguistic diversity today

Nowadays, in most regions of Australia, the actual situation no longer matches this traditional pattern. Many languages have disappeared, speakers replacing them either by another neighbouring Aboriginal language used as a lingua franca, or by a creole (mostly Kriol, the major Australian creole), or by English (often the variety called Aboriginal English). Out of about 250 languages of the eighteenth century, recent estimates claim that about 145 are still spoken “to some degree” (Lee and Obata, 2010). Among these, many are severely endangered, with only a handful of speakers left. Some 20 languages may be considered healthier, in that they number more speakers (sometimes a few thousands) and are still learnt by children: Warlpiri and Arrente in the Centre, Yolngu Matha, Bininj Gun-wok in Arnhem Land (Top End peninsula, central North), Murrinh-Patha, in the East of the Top End, Tiwi on Tiwi Island (Arafura Sea), Guugu Yimidirr in Queensland, and more…

The most spoken Australian Aboriginal language

However, the most widely spoken Australian Aboriginal language, by far, is now the language called Kriol, a local creole that has developed and spread in various regions of the Top End peninsula in the early twentieth century. Varieties of Kriol currently number at least 20,000 speakers, and reach as far as the Kimberleys.

Kriol enjoys various degrees of recognition among its own speakers. Some communities consider it as a variety of English, as “pidgin”, or “broken English”; other communities have adopted it as a language in its own right, and actually claim their pride and affection for it. In any case, the number of speakers and the dynamism of Kriol make it an important component of Australian linguistic diversity, as well as a key component of contemporary Indigenous multilingualism. But interestingly, at the national level, Kriol remains in the shade.

In spite of some interest and curiosity, main stream Australians know little about Kriol – they often know little about Aboriginal languages, linguistic practices in Indigenous communities, or even about linguistic diversity in general. This relative ignorance isn’t so surprising in an Anglophone monolingual country. But of course, it makes it even harder for Australian Indigenous communities to maintain their traditional multilingualism.


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Guarani monolingual resistance in Paraguay

Posted by Christine Pic-Gillard on March 4, 2011

By Christine Pic-Gillard, Doctor in Hispanic studies (Paris 3), Professor at the University of La Réunion.


BY Ianpozzobon (cc)

BY Ianpozzobon (cc)

Paraguay, a small country of some five million inhabitants, is completely landlocked in the South American continent, to the point of considering itself as an island. This isolation has been the source of an insular syndrome bearing fear of an outside threat. While the threat of an invasion by the large neighbouring countries has disappeared nowadays, the feeling for a need to defend identity and linguistic specificities remains. And this defence includes resisting Guarani/Spanish bilingualism, perceived as an attempt to weaken Guarani.


On the South American continent, where the languages of origin have often been swept away, and where the only official language is usually Spanish, the linguistic realities of Paraguay are indeed very peculiar: a 1992 census reveals a large majority of Guarani speakers (around 89%), a very limited number of Spanish monolinguals, a majority of Guarani monolinguals, and a number of Spanish/Guarani bilinguals of around 48%.


The year 1992 consequently saw the political shaping of a myth on which Paraguay had defined itself since the Spanish colonization, the myth of Guarani/Spanish hybridization: that year, the new democratic constitution declares Paraguay as a bilingual country. The Amerindian language of the majority thus becomes one of the two official languages, on equal terms with Spanish, and a Bilingual Education Plan (PEB) is imposed upon children attending school from 1994, regardless of their linguistic origins.


A actual linguistic revolution, therefore, totally silent yet carrying significant resources, is established in 1994: the PEB is meant to spread over twenty-five years, that is an entire generation meant to turn bilingual. While in other places such initiative might have been considered favourable to the speakers of indigenous languages, that was not the case in Paraguay, where Guarani used to have the upper hand and faced the risk of losing ground to compelled bilingualism. Here, the compulsory bilingual education project does in fact stand as a project aiming to reduce and eventually rule out monolingualism, the most important of which was that of Guarani.


Resistance is set in motion at the beginning of the 2000s: peasant organizations act as a relay for reclaiming Guarani as the only official language of Paraguay. They also challenge the European culture of productivism conveyed by the Spanish language, and claim a return to the Amerindian culture of Human harmony with nature embodied by “el modo de ser guarani” (the way of being Guarani).


The bilingual motto “¡sólo progresan los pueblos que leen!/ Toikove kuatiaeñë!” (The only peoples who progress are the peoples who read!) still lies high on the wall of a bookstore on the central square of Asunción. An exclamation that might be reversed into a question: are the peoples who progress really those who read? This remains the question raised by those involved in Guarani language demands and resistance to the Bilingual Education Plan. From where they stand, bilingualism and literacy are everything but factors for progress.


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